Before music, Peter Bittenbender and Jason Goldwatch forged an indelible bond by working on two films together, one of which went on to become a cult classic and the other of which had virtually all evidence of its existence banished from the Internet. They first met in the late ‘90s on the latter project, a student film directed by Bittenbender’s high school friend and Goldwatch’s Cal Arts classmate Isaiah Seret called “High Crimes,” about “mischievous high school kids in a small town” (not to be confused with the 2002 Morgan Freeman/Ashley Judd thriller of the same name). Unfortunately, Seret, now a successful commercial director, got cold feet after the movie was finished and is reportedly sitting on the only existing copy.
Bittenbender and Goldwatch’s next movie, “One Big Trip,” was also about mischievous kids, but this time they made a documentary, helmed by Goldwatch and produced by Bittenbender. The film followed a cross-country road trip in which the greenhorn duo and their friends traveled in an RV doing drugs, tagging buildings with graffiti and consorting with as many colorful characters as they could find.
“One Big Trip” didn’t make it into prestigious film festivals (it played at the alternative, now-defunct No Dance festival in Park City, Utah in 2002), but it made some noise owing largely to its strong, original hip-hop soundtrack. Goldwatch had made friends in the burgeoning alternative rap scene where he was beginning to make a name for himself as a director of inventive music videos. Jurassic 5, Dilated Peoples, Royce Da 5’9” and Del the Funky Homosapien all contributed songs to the album, with Del’s group, the seminal Hieroglyphics crew, agreeing to release a combined soundtrack and DVD on its RED-distributed independent label, Hieroglyphics Imperium Recordings. The project exceeded sales expectations, and in 2003 RED offered Bittenbender and Goldwatch the chance to start an indie hip-hop label of their own.
Ten years later, that label, Decon Records, is still a company with one foot in music and the other in video. Decon has a sister creative agency and video production house that now counts among its clients Google, Visa, Reebok and Absolut. The record label has simultaneously gone on to release projects with The Alchemist, Pusha T, Roc Marciano, Nneka, Jay Electronica, Aceyalone, RJD2, Freddie Gibbs and others.
The cutting edge of both disciplines has proven a lucrative seat for Decon, which is projected to make a profit on approximately $7 million in revenue for 2013, up nearly 40 percent from a year ago.
Breaking in with brands
Decon got its first taste of the branding and creative world in 2004 when a marketing executive at 2K Games who had seen “One Big Trip” reached out to Bittenbender about soundtracking the company’s NBA 2K series. The collaboration ended up lasting for six years, during which time NBA 2K became the most successful sports game franchise in its category.
Then, in 2007, Decon played an integral role in another blockbuster series, this time in television.
“The story that I’ve heard is that Matthew Weiner was driving around in L.A. when he heard a song on KCRW,” Bittenbender says. “He calls his assistant immediately and says ‘I’ve just heard this song 40 minutes into a set, you have to find out what it is.’"
The song Weiner heard, “A Beautiful Mine” by RJD2, was a Decon release on an instrumental version of a collaboration album with the rapper Aceyalone. Weiner loved it so much that he ended up using it as the opening theme song for his then-dark-horse AMC advertising drama “Mad Men.”
“No one knew how big that show was going to be, I don’t even think Weiner knew,” Bittenbender says. “But we worked out a good deal with Lionsgate for them to use the song, and now it’s one of the most successful songs in the history of the company and has had synchs with Samsung and Christan Dior. Our licensing division really took off after that.”
In a way that most small record companies in 2013 only dream of, the advertising industry pays. Campaigns don’t have the long gestational and promotional periods that records do and therefore allow for greater volume. A big project for a major brand, such as a 17-part web series tied to the Super Bowl that Decon did for Visa earlier this year, can bring in up to $700,000 in billings after three months of work.
“I’d have to sell 100,000 records to match that,” Bittenbender says. “And that might take me a year or more.”
Fully 75 percent of Decon’s revenue now comes from its ad/production/music services business, which allows the company broad creative freedom on the label side of things. Decon works with many non-commercial rap artists developing elaborate packaging and multi-media bundles for an average 6-8 records per year. (The recent collaboration between renowned West Coast producers The Alchemist and Oh No, “Vodka and Ayahuasca,”shipped with a custom shot glass and black light poster.) All of the artists on Decon are referred to as “collaborators,” and the label’s contracts are always limited to just one album— the profits of which are split 50/50— with the possible option of a second.
That arrangement creates inherent instability in Decon’s roster, but many of its artists have decided to stick around from one record to the next. Working with the label provides a number of competitive advantages, including high-end music videos shot by the likes of Goldwatch and his associate 13thwitness and the possibility of a role in one of the company’s many music-friendly brand campaigns. The Alchemist, who has released several albums with Decon both with Oh No and as a solo artist, was recently tapped to co-produce the soundtrack of a very high profile upcoming video game sequel.
“When I first met Peter and Jason they didn’t really know the mechanics of the music industry, which was oddly refreshing to me because they weren’t jaded,” says The Alchemist. “They always had a different perspective. It wasn’t just ‘OK, sign with us and we’re gonna put out a CD.’ There were so many other things they wanted to do because they were visual and creative and a little bit crazy… in a good way.”
The ballad of Jay Electronica
In 2009, Decon embarked on one of its most ambitious artist-oriented, multimedia projects when Goldwatch and Bittenbender traveled to Nepal to shoot a documentary with Jay Electronica, the mercurial and fiercely talented rapper from New Orleans who had, at the time, just signed a 1-album record deal with the label. In Nepal, Electronica, who has a penchant for the mystical and spiritual, was filmed by Goldwatch participating in a burial ceremony at the sacred Bagmati River, conversing with Buddhist monks in a high temple about the meaning of the universe and rapping at the base of Mount Everest. Bittenbender describes the footage as “unlike anything ever seen from a musician, let alone a hip-hop artist.”
But Electronica was apparently less satisfied. Known for his elusiveness and exacting perfectionism, the artist stonewalled calls to release the film, cut by Decon into a 90 minute feature from over 40 hours of footage, or to work with the company on completing it to his satisfaction. Eventually giving up, Bittenbender decided to switch his focus to music and encouraged Electronica to put out a new single. It took months of cajoling, but finally Electronica revealed “Exhibit C,” a piercing and euphoric elegy produced by Just Blaze that blew Bittenbender out of his sneakers. The song sent shockwaves rippling through the hip-hop community and was heralded on MTV2 and in XXL Magazine as an instant classic. Sensing the kind of momentum that few underground artists ever enjoy, Bittenbender implored Electronica to shoot a music video for “Exhibit C” and/or release an EP or mixtape.
But again the artist balked.
“Jay kind of retreated back into his shell,” says Bittenbender, who let Electronica stay in his house for a month when the rapper decided to move to New York. “I think everything kind of happened so fast that he was a little overwhelmed by it.”
Though “Exhibit C” proved to have remarkable staying power with fans and sold well on iTunes, even without a video, Electronica was in no hurry to release more new music. He did agree to do press appearances and perform at live shows, and an album, “Act II: The Patents of Nobility (The Turn),” was announced but never completed.
“I’m sitting on about a dozen Jay Electronica songs produced by everyone from Just Blaze to DJ Khalil to James Samuel [of The Bullitts] that have never been heard by anybody and are many times superior to 90 percent of the music that’s coming out today,” says Bittenbender. “But to him it’s not good enough.”
“He’d make a great record and myself and whoever else was in the studio would be like ‘Oooh shit! This record’s incredible!’ ” Bittenbender continues. “But he’d just go ‘Eh, I don’t know. Let’s move on to something else.’ I’d say to him ‘Dude, let’s finish this record, it’s so fucking good.’ And he’d be like ‘Don’t worry, we’ll come back to it.’ Six months later, it’d still be sitting there.”
In November of 2010, Jay Z’s label Roc Nation approached Decon about buying out its recording agreement with Jay Electronica. Both the label and the artist agreed to the sale on amicable terms. Decon retains points on profits from Electronica’s debut album as well as logo rights, and Bittenbender signed on to manage the artist with two other partners.
Shortly after the Roc Nation signing, Electronica moved to London, where rumors began to circulate that he was involved in an affair with the billionaire heiress Kate Rothschild. Abroad, Bittenbender said he believes the artist “became less and less focused on recording an album.”
“I kind of stepped away from the business and now I’m just a fan,” says Bittenbender. “We’re still close, he’s a brother. But until Jay wants to do something, there’s not much to do. I hope for the sake of hip-hop that he does put out a record, because the fans want it, they deserve it and he’s sitting on some incredible music.”
Re-making Mass Appeal
Following the model of other labels with sister creative agencies, including Vice Music and Fader Label, earlier this year Decon added a media platform to its business with the relaunch of Mass Appeal magazine. Decon partner and music journalist Sacha Jenkins proposed the idea, lamenting the fact that the iconic street art and culture publication had ceased publishing in 2008 after the death of one of its founders.
Decon succeeded in raising $1.2 million in venture capital for the relaunch, recruiting investors including Nas, Pusha T and the VC firm White Owl Capital to come on board the project. The new Mass Appeal debuted at SXSW in March, where A$AP Rocky, Danny Brown and Kendrick Lamar performed for a standing-room-only audience.
With the magazine in its stable, Decon is preparing for a new growth phase. The cultural capital associated with Mass Appeal, as well as the recent hire of veteran advertising executive Misha Louy, formerly of BBDO and Droga5, have given the company increased leverage with brands. Currently, Decon is working on the launch of a Red Bull-sponsored art and graffiti school modeled after the famous Red Bull Music Academy.
“The magazine, like the label, is a great calling card,” Bittenbender says. “We can walk into meetings with companies and say ‘We understand culture. Here’s our magazine, here’s our music.’ And they can’t say we don’t know what we’re talking about because it’s right there in front of them. We’re doing it everyday.”